Screenshot of The Museum Game sliding scale of interestingness. A convict love token is connected to Mary Gilmore's typewriter with the resemblance 'anti-establishment: he's a highway robber; she's a radical socialist poet

Cultivating conceptual propinquity

Dialogic thinking doesn’t only mean taking into account two different perspectives; it also means recognising the common ground between entities – what it is that makes them one. This post is a note about game mechanics to cultivate conceptual propinquity.

In Sembl games, players form associations between pairs of objects or concepts. Evaluating others’ moves according to a sliding scale of interestingness provides for a great gamey dynamic. It’s fun, and about as open and social a contest as you could imagine.

Screenshot of The Museum Game sliding scale of interestingness. A convict love token is connected to Mary Gilmore's typewriter with the resemblance 'anti-establishment: he's a highway robber; she's a radical socialist poet

Screenshot from the Museum form of Sembl showing the sliding scale of interestingness.

More importantly, the mission to associate, and the challenge to be interesting – both invoke and honour dialogical play, sparking all manner of logical and analogical associations between nodes. In aggregate, those associations form a new big picture of the networks we inhabit, which in turn can help us to communicate better via machines.

But to operate optimally, Sembl needs an additional filter.

Sembl’s true power lies in its capacity to surface similitude – links that are mutually applicable, or bi-directional. Such links do not make a comparison; they unite.

Having now observed dozens of games played at the Museum, I notice that players often deviate from my purist approach, and create links in the form of this-whereas-that, associating the pair by way of an opposition or a third element. Such moves can be highly humorous and thereby interesting, but asymmetrical links do not serve the purpose of drawing disparate objects and concepts together, so their interest is more fleeting. Asymmetrical linked data is also, as I have ranted earlier, subjective, sometimes objectionable – even authoritarian.

The act of perceiving a resemblance between things conceptually distant elicits understanding of important hidden-in-plain-sight patterns. A sense of connectedness – or the overview effect – is insightful and can fill us with wonder at the beauty and fragility of the Earth. Such a perspective can also yield understanding of the structures that divide us.

Beyond its liberatingly loose notion of interestingness, Sembl needs to surface higher-value, propinquitous links – those with a centripetal force – those that specify the nature of a similitude. I’m therefore thinking that… Players should be able to mark down links that don’t work both ways.

Sketching data structure & interface

Thinking about how in Sembl, the lines that connect things are not lines but, actually, circuits – because they are always already mutual, originating from and applying equally to both things – I started to imagine how the network of aggregated game data would look, and how you could interact with it to explore both the whole and its parts.

Pencil drawing of four ways of representing a network diagram, with the words 'A line resolves into a circle.'

In Sembl, node-connecting lines are actually circuits.

Lines between things could be spring-like. On hover, they could draw the two things closer and resolve into a circular facet or disc, perpendicular to the connecting line. You could click to enlarge the posited semblance.

In the next sketch I’m wondering if the data structure could really be this simple. Each semblance is linked to (its rating and) two things, which in turn have title/s and persistent identifiers (PIs).

Pencil drawing showing a resemblance and its rating between two things represented by their title/s and a persistent identifier

A resemblance and its rating are at the centre of two items comprising title/s and a link to their location.

The data is generated in the game and editable via a wiki, so we are also likely to capture metadata about who created it (username or IP address), and possibly also when, where etc – but those few fields form the foundation.

A glimpse of Sembl thinking: womb to tomb

Consider the rhyme of




It has the delicious property that these two words describe, if you will, the two chambers from which we enter this life and through which we leave it. Not only do the two words rhyme on the ear, in other words, they can also be said to rhyme in meaning.

Meditation: if you were wearing headphones, and these two words were spoken, what would the stereophony of their meanings be?